[Caution: spoilers about The Act ahead.]
Only three months have gone by, but it's probably safe to go ahead and officially mark 2019 the Year of the Scam. March's shocking Felicity Huffman/Lori Loughlin scandal became just the latest in a string of stories about unbelievable fraud and deception; from Jussie Smollett's alleged self-inflicted crime to the Fyre festival flicks and HBO's doc about Silicon Valley scammer Elizabeth Holmes, over-the-top tales about psych-outs have been the dominant thread in media this year, making Hulu's The Act, at least in a cultural sense, arrive at the perfect time.
Based on the true (and truly insane) story of how Missouri transplant Dee Dee Blanchard was murdered by her daughter Gypsy in 2015 after years of duping the public — and Gypsy — to believe Gypsy had leukemia, muscular dystrophy, and a host of other fake ailments, The Act imagines what their hell looked and functioned like. Thanks to gripping, creepy performances from Patricia Arquette (Dee Dee) and Joey King (Gypsy), The Act hums along with suspenseful, sometimes terrifying timbre as it shows Dee Dee brainwashing and manipulating people and Gypsy longing for escape from the prison that is her home.
Director Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre sets the chilly tone in the first two episodes, inviting viewers inside the Blanchard's macabre house of horrors. There's been a murder, and Gypsy, nowhere to be seen, is the subject of concern among the Blanchards' slightly nosy neighbors, including Mel, played by Chloe Sevigny. From there, The Act goes backwards, showing in intricate, grimace-worthy detail how Dee Dee conned the government, medical professionals, her neighbors, and her child. Gypsy, confined to a wheelchair, is convinced she has the mind of a child, and is a slave to her mom's regimen of (unnecessary) injections, liquefied food, doctor visits, and total social isolation. Increasingly though, Gypsy begins to grasp, through a series of micro-revelations, that she's older than she thought and, most distressingly, nowhere near as sick as she thought either. Most of the scenes where Gypsy is either seconds away from incurring her mom's wrath or enduring it are heart-poundingly intense, although at times, its "crazy mom with the hapless prisoner daughter" trope slips into melodrama.
Saying Patricia Arquette is amazing in a role is like saying snow is cold but, yes, Patricia Arquette is amazing as Dee Dee; as she did in Escape at Dannemora, Arquette vanishes into her character, a monster with a soothing voice and propensity for unsettling rage. King also gives Gypsy vibrancy, embodying her external traits, like her babyish voice, and Gypsy's internal complications, like her seeping mistrust of her mother and attachment to her, with flexible deft.
The material they have to work with, however, remains disappointingly flat. Make no mistake, The Act is a good series — one that was practically begging to be made considering the story it's based on — and it's as mesmerizing and intoxicating as it is morbid and skin-crawlingly creepy. But it satiates morbid curiosities without making any kind of thesis, or attempt at offering insight. Recent hit series based on true events, like say The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story or Dirty John, not only show how what happened occurred (with some creative license of course), but in the process made important statements on homophobia or the societal danger women face because of toxic masculinity. The Act, by comparison, walks us through what happened with some degree of imagination and well-paced suspense, but in the first five episodes sent to critics, it never rises above being more than lush visual journalism. At a time when we're all so captivated with stories about fraudsters, The Act never seizes an opportunity to make us understand why Dee Dee manufactured this system of toxic codependency — Old childhood wound? Fear of being alone? Plain old greed? — missing out on an "Aha!" moment that might've made The Act magical. But for plain old Mommy horror fun, The Act does its job nicely.
The Act debuts Tuesday, Mar. 20 on Hulu.